There’s something about Ailefroide and I think I might have figured out just what it is. Let me explain: Ailefroide is a small hamlet in the French Alps, close to l’Argentiere and Briancon consisting of a handful of pubs, two little food shops, two gear shops and a campsite. I went for the first time last summer and this year included it in my European bouldering tour which also included some stunning bouldering in Fontainebleau and an ill-fated trip to Cresciano in Switzerland. Anyone who has ever been will understand my enthusiasm for returning, it really is a stunning place.
Anyway, back to my realisation. Last year we spent the first three days of the trip damming the river, making a fridge in the river and devising a beer-pulley system. At the time I thought my lack of motivation to climb might have been because I’d climbed a lot before I went and just needed some time to slow down, have a break and enjoy myself. However, this year was very similar and I found myself stuck in the same rut, watching my friends spend an (albeit wet) day making bows, chairs and other such useless paraphernalia; and then it dawned on me: there’s too much there.
On the first day, I spoke to my friend Tom, to whom I’d rather inadequately tried to explain the scenery and said, “You see what I mean? If you look in the direction, there’s a mountain. Turn to that direction, there’s another one. And finally turn that way…” you get the idea. Even though we weren’t summating mountains or even climbing sport routes, the bouldering in the valley is still unbelievable and maybe that is Ailefroide’s major downfall. I am convinced we spent an entire day basking in the beauty of the mountains that surrounded us.
Now this year did have one slight difference to last, in that this year we had arranged to go during the Tout A Bloc festival. My friend knew we were going and told me it was on, so a quick change of plans and we were there for the festival. Included was an impressive competition for major climbers, won by a local climber from Argentiere, another competition for everyone, even a concert held in the village on one evening. Setting up camp on the second day (we arrived very late and found a better spot in the morning) I was sure that the festival would dull my distinct lack of motivation and force me to get my arse in gear.
So it rained. The competition was pushed back a day, thus throwing what little plans we knew of into disarray and there were mutterings rising from the team as to how long we were actually going to stay. Later I tried to brave the rain but to little avail and I started to wonder how well our stay in the French Alps would be.
Imagine my relief when I awoke the next morning to find the boulders dry, the sky clear and the sun beating down on my shoulders. In a typical Edwards-Ailefroide way I slowly gathered my stuff, piled it in the car and drove up the valley like the lazy git that I am. We met some other French climbers, and tried to push ourselves as well as we could, hitting 6b along the way.
The only problem with having several days resting and then making a hard push back onto the rock was the toll it quickly took on our fingers and two of my friends decided they wanted to go explore the valley further, walking and climbing up to the Glacier Blanc, so Dave and myself went in search of other possible conquests. After meeting some slightly ruder Frenchmen who decided they owned the Plaque boulder, we travelled slowly back towards the tents and enjoyed more pleasant bouldering with more pleasant people.
Hitting the rock the next day, back together again, we realised the great joy of the Tout A Bloc festival and other such events was the people that you got to meet and after some fun with no-armed-climbing with some Italians, we finally met some Brits. From Manchester, they had entered the free-for-all competition that we had missed entry for by half an hour and subsequently explained the rules: climb as many routes as you can, getting someone to say you’ve done it properly and achieve points for each ascent. Points varied according to the grade of the ascent, an 8a achieving something silly like a thousand points more than a 6a, which amassed a total of something like 10 points.
The mathematics weren’t important to the climbers, though and our newfound friends were merely enjoying the festival. Chris, Dave and Tom met them later at the Mushroom boulder for what was apparently a great afternoons climbing but my poor toes could take no more and I ambled sorrowfully back for a shower and a spot of slacklining. Also that day there were a number of manufacturer stalls in the village and later, prizes for the competition and a concert and large meal to be enjoyed by all.
Tied down by schedule and the end of the festival, that was our last full day in Ailefroide and after a morning’s climbing after the slight injury the day previously, we left heading through Italy into Switzerland. It was quite sad to leave Ailefroide as we all knew there was so much more we could have done, but then I will always say that about the place, there really is a lifetimes climbing enclosed in such a small place. I would recommend to anyone to visit but I will add this: next year I will visit again for the Tout A Bloc. Hopefully I’ll have enough motivation to drag myself out of bed for the comp…